Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Shavuot – A New Idea of God

The Israelites stood at Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and the sense that something epochal in history was unfolding. To this very day, what is called the revelation at Sinai is central to Jewish tradition and the ten commandments are central to the world. What precisely was revealed that made so much of a difference?

There are many ways to answer this question, but let me suggest one: In the ancient world, as we see when we read Homer or other myths, how the gods felt about you depended upon how you treated them. Give them what they want and you will be favored.

The first part of the ten commandments seem to follow the same pattern – there is one God, do not make other images of God, and so forth. But suddenly, it shifts to how one treats parents, how we treat those we love, how we treat our neighbor. The great revelation becomes clear: God does not only care about our attitude toward God; God cares how we treat one another.

The ten commandments were given in the desert, and not in Israel, teach our sages, because they are for everyone to hear, not only for Jews. The great principle that is born at Sinai has become so fundamental we barely realize that it had to be born into an unwilling world: all people are in God’s image and honoring that in one another is the most important way to honor God.

Shavuot is not a holiday with the same kind of memorable signs that characterize Passover or Sukkot. We do not have a Seder or a Sukkah. The primary custom associated with Sukkot is to stay up late and study. If Passover is about freedom and Sukkot about appreciation, then we might say Shavuot is about understanding. Into a world of savagery and indifference, where human beings were exploitable commodities, Judaism taught a new understanding, born at Sinai. Our efforts to combat hate in the modern world are an advancement of this understanding: “You should love your neighbor as yourself for I am the Lord (Lev 19:18).” So revolutionary an idea takes thousands of years to fully grasp, and we are still trying. On this Shavuot, we commit ourselves to understand anew and to struggle for the recognition that kindness to human beings is a reflection of our gratitude to the One who created us. Chag Sameach.